You hear the term get thrown around inevitably every four years in the aftermath of the World Cup match draws, with some countries bemoaning their fate before a ball’s even been kicked. We are, of course, talking about a fundamental aspect of football folklore: The dreaded Group of Death.
This informal term first came to prominence in the 1970s by Mexican journalists (“grupo de la muerte” in their language) and has been a mainstay in soccer vernacular ever since. In some years, there can be more than one such group, or sometimes none at all. A group generally receives this “honour” when several strong contenders are packed into the same bracket and when the number of teams are greater than the number of qualifying spots up for grabs.
The eventual title winners don’t always come from this said group (though many have been felled by the dreaded match-ups). But when they do, they do so in style — check out Brazil in 1970 and Italy in 1982. But whether a champion emerges after the dust settles or not, they still prove to be worth watching. We take a look at some of the most prolific Groups of Death to come out of the history books.
First round, Group G — Germany, Ghana, Portugal and United States
As of late, a slew of articles have dominated World Cup headlines, all posing the same question: Will the US (scarcely known for its football-playing abilities) survive the Group of Death? With Jurgen Klinsmann at the helm (former star player and the tactical brain that famously led the German squad to victory in the 2006 World Cup), they may actually have a fighting chance. Standing ready to throw a spanner in the works are the Germans themselves, who now ranked second in the world, are undoubtedly eager to show Klinsmann what he’s missing. In turn, hoping to mess up the title hopes of the Germans are world number four Portuguese.
While Ghana starts as the underdog of the group, they remain a force to be reckoned with, having been the only African team to advance to the quarter-finals in the last World Cup. It may just prove to be Group G’s dark horse, further muddying the chances of an outright victor in the group. But unless another prophetic animal (à la Paul the Octopus, the German cephalopod whose accurate divinations in the 2010 World Cup propelled him to international fame) shows up in time for the first match of the group on June 16, we’ll just have to wait and see who makes it out of the colossal scrap.
First round, Group F — Sweden, England, Argentina and Nigeria
The bigger they are, the harder they fall — the 2002 World Cup is a prime example of that. Between the lot, the four countries had accrued 10 top-four finishes (the highest concentration out of all the groups that season). But with perennial favourites Argentina rounding up the ranks, there didn’t seem to be much of a question as to who one of the two coveted advancing spots would go to. Or so they thought.
After winning only one out of their three matches, the Argentinean team spectacularly failed to advance to the next stage, crashing out of the 2002 World Cup unexpectedly in the first round. Soft-favourites England did little to help itself in its lacklustre draws against Nigeria and Sweden, though it was just enough for the team to scrape through to the semi-finals to join surprise winners Scandinavians as the top two survivors.
First round, Group E — Mexico, Republic of Ireland, Italy and Norway
While Group E doesn’t look like a particularly challenging line-up, it was still a tooth-and-nail fight to the finish for the four teams. So close was the fight, in fact, that 1994’s Group E remains the only group in the history of the World Cup to finish with the exact number of points: Each team finished with one win, loss and draw. The Irish (who have never come within spitting distance of a World Cup trophy) brought with them a healthy dose of bad blood against triple champions Italy — having been sent home by them in the quarter-finals of the previous World Cup — and triumphantly won the opening match 1-0.
But the upsets didn’t end there. After a host of terse, closely fought games, it was the Nords who were sent packing due to their lacklustre goal difference, despite coming in to the competition ranked second globally. The sigh of relief the other three teams breathed was unprecedented as they hustled on to the second round.
Second round, Group C — Italy, Brazil, Argentina
Till today, Group 3 of the 1982 World Cup is oft remembered as the “deadliest ever” Group of Death and its reputation is well-earned. A unique format that year saw a hot house of three football giants and former world champions caged together in one loaded group to duke it out amongst themselves. Tempers flared and nerves were affray in this high-stakes match. And yes, there was blood, especially when Maradona kicked Joao Batista in the groin during an Argentina-Brazil match (in which the former ultimately lost) — a stunt that earned him a ticket off the field at the 85th minute and the Argentinians an early flight home.
Despite the victory, Batista and his team had their title dreams delayed another year by a fresher Italian squad, who held the Brazilians at bay by winning with a thrilling 4-3 score. The Italians then went on to win their next two matches to add another piece of silverware to the trophy cabinets, taking gold at the World Cup for a third time.
First round, Group 3 — Brazil, England, Romania and Czechoslovakia
1970 was a remarkable year for the World Cup: The beautiful game was broadcast live around the world for the first time in glorious Technicolor, the highest average of goals per match was recorded (and stands till this date) and the first Group of Death was spawned. A lack of a seeding system saw defending champions England drawn alongside double title-winners Brazil, former runners-up Czechoslovakia and a formidable Romanian force.
The Brazilian side of 1970 — often touted as the dream team to end all dream teams — had bounced back from its shock exit in the early stages of the 1966 World Cup and was ready to face a host of strong competition in Group 3. But as it played out, the Seleção had nothing to fear, not even of reigning champs England. The South American team slashed and burned its way straight through all six games to clinch its third title, allowing legendary maverick Pelé to leave his final World Cup in style.